Local commuters call it “Malfunction Junction”: a spaghetti-style network of roads, ramps and flyovers where interstates 26, 20 and 126 converge west of downtown Columbia, with traffic congestion and delays part of the daily drive.
SCDOT conducts hundreds of surveys, studies and public hearings when planning projects such as this to determine the most efficient route and placement of roads. Engineers have identified some 300 tracts that will need to be acquired for the Carolina Crossroads project. SCDOT says it has budgeted $250 million for property acquisition and is negotiating right-of-way acquisition.
“What we’re trying to evaluate is the best balance of engineering improvements with minimizing environmental impacts,” Brian Klauk, Carolina Crossroads project manager, said. “Minimizing those environmental impacts would include residential, commercial and other property uses.”
A majority of the properties in the right-of-way for Carolina Crossroads are commercial, as both I-26 and I-20 are major commercial corridors. However, some residential properties will need to be acquired, Klauk said.
In its property acquisition process, SCDOT follows strict guidelines set forth by the Fifth Amendment, which protects a citizen from property seizure for public use without just compensation. State statutes and Federal Highway Administration regulations also govern the property acquisition process. Property owners are offered current market rates and are provided with relocation assistance and expenses.
“We will negotiate with everyone, with all the property owners,” said Chris Johnston, SCDOT assistant director of right-of-way for mega projects.
A right-of-way agent assigned to the project verifies ownership of each tract and existence of any mortgages, liens and judgements. The agent notifies affected owners and informs them how much of their property is needed for the project, and an offer is made based on a fair-market property appraisal reviewed by a second appraiser.
Appraisals may also be audited by the Federal Highway Administration if a project uses federal funds. Property owners can have their own appraisal conducted by a qualified appraiser.
“The constitution of South Carolina and the federal government require that just or fair compensation be paid to a landowner for the acquisition of whatever property is acquired,” said Paul de Holczer, SCDOT assistant chief counsel. “That would include damages. If a landowner has a piece of property and you’re not taking the entire property, then the landowner gets paid for the value of what you took plus the damage to any remaining property, minus the benefits to the remaining property.”
De Holczer, one of six SCDOT staff attorneys, mainly works with the right-of-way division on land acquisition issues. The department also has about 20 private attorneys statewide who assist in property acquisition when condemnation is required.
If both parties cannot negotiate a settlement, the state Eminent Domain Procedure Act provides a uniform procedure for condemnation of properties for public benefits. The act requires SCDOT to file the condemnation notice with the county clerk of court’s office and deposit the amount of the offer, which the property owner can withdraw at any time, until a jury determines the amount due the property owner. Some cases are mediated.
Relocated property owners will be provided with a comparable replacement property that SCDOT defines as “decent, safe and sanitary.”
Luke Burke, an attorney with Greenville-based law firm Bannister, Wyatt & Stalvey, said property owners challenging acquisitions should get their own appraiser. An accurate appraisal by someone the landowner hires could help reach a settlement more quickly, and in some cases, landowners can be reimbursed for reasonable legal fees, Burke said. He said there are also times when attorneys discover the property owner is owed more money.
“It’s important for landowners to know that the appraiser works for the DOT — they’re not employees, but they do a lot of appraisals for the DOT — so oftentimes it’s a good idea to get your own appraisal or talk to somebody about how much your real estate is worth,” Burke said.
Burke said property owners may also be able to file a challenge action if it can be proven the property, or a portion of it, is not needed in the acquisition.
“If they’re building a road and they really only need 25 feet of land and they take 50, or they choose to go a route that doesn’t make any engineering sense for some non-rational reason, then you can challenge their right to take the land,” he said. “But most of the time, they have the right to take it as long as they’re using it for public use.”
A landowner does not have to file a response to a condemnation under the Eminent Domain Procedure Act , though a property owner’s refusal to sell cannot delay the project. The law allows construction to begin project before the condemnation is settled at trial. In smaller projects, work could be completed before trial.
De Holczer said SCDOT wants the appraisals to be accurate because accurate estimates keep projects moving. He said the department has a negotiation settlement record of better than 80%.
“DOT’s attorneys are instructed to try to help a landowner get fair compensation,” de Holczer said. “… If we get an appraisal, we want their appraisal to be correct. We don’t want it to be deficient in any way — that it’s failed to consider something important that weighs in favor of the landowner. We want to treat the landowner fairly.”
Property values may also increase because of a highway project. De Holczer cited an example of surplus agricultural property, purchased for about $7,500 an acre to build an interstate exchange, which sold for $40,000 an acre after project completion.